Plain language always wins. Always.

Businessman Midair in a Business MeetingI love it when I’m inspired to write a blog post due to something that I read through social media. In this case, this morning I saw a Facebook post written by Jack Molisani, author of Be The Captain of Your Career, executive director of the Lavacon Conference, and technical recruiter that intrigued me. His post is listed below with his permission. It stated:

Just read this in a resume:

“Sophisticated, results-driven Program Management professional with a demonstrated ability to successfully lead business or technical initiatives with demonstrated experience in IT Governance, cost and schedule management, leadership, cost estimating, and infrastructure management covering full life-cycle application development & integration, data management, strategy & IT architecture implementations/roll-outs.”

First thought: Sophisticated? He wears shirts with frilly cuffs and drinks tea with his pinky up?

Second thought: Run-on sentence. Can’t communicate well in writing.

Oh candidates, why must thou shootest thouselfs in thine own feet?**

I definitely agree with Jack’s assessment. The run-on sentence is particularly bad.

The thing that caught my eye even more was the language used. As Jack alluded, it initially implies some sort of sophistication or high-intelligence level.  But in the end, couldn’t this candidate have simply said, “I am a successful and reliable project manager with experience in X, Y and Z”?   I mentioned to Jack that I would not be surprised that the candidate wrote this way because many job descriptions for openings are written similarly.

One of my greatest frustrations when I did job searches in the past was getting through wordy job descriptions, as they were written in the same gobbledy-gook language used by this candidate. WHY? Is this done for the purpose of weeding out candidates from the get-go, as if to say, “If you can’t read this, then you must be too stupid for this job”? I’ve often gotten that feeling.  Or, I’ve read many job descriptions that sound much grander than they are–again, much like this candidate’s description of himself–only to find that it’s a basic job with several steps, and it’s not that hard to do. The job description was only made to sound like more than what it really is, which is what this candidate was trying to achieve, I’m sure.

This made me think about plain language use, and how it’s starting to take hold in technical communications. I’m really glad about this shift. Why? To be honest, I’m an idiot. While I have a solid education, and can speak and write fairly well, how often will you hear me using the $10 words? Rarely. The use of “fancy” language alienates people, and in my case, it overwhelms me. My brain can’t always process it sufficiently. I find that technical writing is similar to translating complicated English into simplified or plain-language English.  Since I’ve learned how to do that over many years, it’s become a little bit easier for me to process. But, most people don’t have that internal filter. They hear or read, “Blah, blah, blah,” as Jack implied in his reaction above.

A follow-up comment to Jack’s post by one individual pointed out that this is how business people are taught to write. That’s a good point. I would also point out that legal professionals have the same issue. Have you ever tried to read “legal-ese”? It’s just crazy. I remember an early assignment in grad school required us to look up the local legal codes in our towns, and “translate” the legal mumbo-jumbo into plain language. I remember mine clearly, as it directly related to my house. Put into plain English, the particular housing code from my town stated that if you have a pool in your backyard, you have to have a fence around it for legal and insurance purposes; if you didn’t, you’d be fined. Simple enough, right? Not if you read the original language.

Why are business and legal professionals still writing as they did a century ago? Who are they trying to impress? In our current digital age, it’s a pointless endeavour.  We are a society of instant gratification. We need people to get straight to the point. This is most evident with the proliferation of mobile devices. We need information to be short, fast, and quickly comprehensive.  Writing in the “sophisticated” language used by that the job candidate above isn’t going to help anyone anymore.  We need to be able to communicate with customers and citizens in a way that everyone can understand. This is not the dumbing down of language as we know it, necessarily. As I said earlier, using grandiose language alienates the reader, especially if the reader is trying to find out basic facts. All Jack wanted to know was whether this person qualified for the job.  Instead, he had to translate what the person was saying before he could determine that, and that act in itself turned Jack off to this candidate. It’s not a good reaction to have.

Plain language is not simplifying language for the less-educated. It’s a simplification of content at its best. Technical communicators and universities (and yes, I’ll even say it, all schools in general) have to start teaching their students to have a full understanding of rich vocabularies, yet choose words wisely to communicate the best message possible. Tech comm does that in aces. We need to get the business schools and law schools (among others) on board with this concept.

So, Candidate, if you want to get in Jack’s good graces (or anyone’s good graces for that matter), you’d be better off writing in plain language. If you pick up a copy of Jack’s book, too, you’ll get some other hints that will make you a more viable candidate. Get to work!

**Update: a few hours after I originally posted this, it appears the either Facebook is hiding the post, or Jack took it down. I know that some of the comments he got showed that people misinterpreted his intention and purpose of the post, and perhaps it got too heated to keep the post up, which is a shame. I definitely did get his permission first before I “reprinted” it here.  I support Jack’s intention in sharing the information, because I know that he didn’t publically humiliate a specific person by name or inference, and his purpose was to show how a recruiter really does react to a poorly written resume. Jack’s business, and by extension his recent book, are meant to be guides to helping anyone get a good job. Jack has continually pointed out that many of the steps needed are so basic. This is what he was trying to point out in the post he wrote above. I suppose I understand his position because I’ve been the candidate enough times that I actually know that the smallest things–like what Jack pointed out with this candidate–have made the difference as to whether I got an interview or not. The other perspective I understand is that as a recruiter. While I’m not a recruiter, my mother owned her own agency for years, so I learned a lot from her about what that business entails, and it’s not an easy job. So for that, I understand where Jack was coming from. He wasn’t being antagonistic, but rather it was a remark of frustration. –techcommgeekmom

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3 Responses to Plain language always wins. Always.

  1. “Oh candidates, why must thou shootest thouselfs in thine own feet?” Love it!

  2. Danielle,

    Love this!

    P.S. Do you have a link to Jack’s post? I can’t find it, and I do follow him (and his book page) on Facebook.

    Marcia

    • Marcia, I tried to find it again, but I couldn’t. It wasn’t on his personal feed or his book feed anymore. I’ve added an update to this post, so you’ll have my feedback on your question there.

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